Robert Wright’s The Evolution Of God

I’ve just read Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God, which is a book about the history of religion, about the changes in the ways that people have seen the idea of God. There are quite a few excerpts from the book on its website if you want an idea of the flavour of it. Wright spends most of the book arguing that the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Bible and the Koran make so much more sense if we see them as written by real, flawed people with political agendas, and with theologies that sometimes differ quite dramatically from how we would interpret them today. His footnotes regarding all this are positively centipedal, and without knowing the literature thoroughly, I suspect that Wright presents current critical thought about this stuff fairly accurately.

However, the oddest thing about the book is its conclusion. There are three odd things about it: a) based on the rest of the book, it is unexpected, and b) it is nowhere near as well argued as the rest of the book; and c) It really reads like a major, important, part of the book that seriously matters a lot to Wright (borne out by the voluminous online arguments he has had with Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist and atheist, about this conclusion).

Wright’s argument, basically, is this:

1.The history of the Abrahamic religions can be explained quite easily through a materialistic viewpoint, considering what we know about human psychology, game theory, and history. The presence of God is unnecessary to explain the writing of the various holy scriptures.

2.However, the history of religion shows a moral order – people in general have become more “moral” as time goes on (which Wright seems to see in a “if we act nicely towards others, it’s a win-win situation”).

3.This moral order needs an explanation, and one explanation is a deist, non-interventionist God, who set up the universe in such a way that we would happen.

Point 1 is hard to disagree with, given the voluminous evidence he presents in the book. Many of our motivations are subconscious, and people are capable of acting in ways that are self-interested without realising it. This applies to the people who write the books, and it is hard to prove assumptions otherwise. Points 2 and 3 are working on the assumption that just because we cannot rely on scriptures for knowledge of God does not mean that God does not exist. This is a fair point, but is not going to change the mind of anybody who believes that the burden of proof lies upon the believer. Wright hopes, however, that his argument from ‘moral order’ might change minds.

Wright argues that the existence of ‘moral order’ is really quite special, and something that demands more than a materialistic explanation. Wright is of the school that the important truths revealed by religion are moral truths, that religion is about how to live your life, how to act morally, how to be a good person. Wright clearly holds this to be self-evidently true, and this is why he does not try very hard to prove points 2 and 3. Wright also believes that there are major threats to the world as we know it that loom in the near future, and that the moral truths of religion are necessary for dealing with these major threats.

So there’s two questions here. 1) Has there been moral progress in history? and 2) Does moral progress in history logically lead to deism?

In regards to whether there has been moral progress in history, it depends on how you define moral. I suspect I define moral differently to the people in Iraqi gangs who are currently lynching gay men, and secular philosophy has long argued about what ‘moral’ and ‘ethical’ mean. But say we take Wright’s definition of morality as being that which encourages ‘non-zero-sum’ relationships between large groups of people – morality is things that lead to well-optimised win-win situations. In a lot of ways, war and slavery are the opposite of moral in Wright’s world.

So how do we fare, if we use their elimination as examples of progress? There hasn’t been a year in history since about 3000BC when, at least somewhere in the world, there was no war. (And before that, it’s just that we don’t have records of it). But, for example, the majority of Europeans, Australasians and North Americans and East Asians living today don’t have first-hand experience of war, whereas war was probably an everyday part of a hunter-gatherer’s life. There are more slaves at the moment than at any other point in history. On the other hand, there’s a smaller percentage of people who are slaves these days, and the US has managed to elect a biracial president, and that means that previously very strong prejudices have been reduced, at least. John Gray has argued in books like Black Mass that (the hope for) moral progress is an illusion based in unexamined assumptions of Christian dogma, and that our seemingly improved situation today is illusory and about to collapse. But then he’s the kind of disillusioned ex-Thatcherite who would argue that kind of thing. So, sure, there has been some increase in moral order. But, as Gray points out, there’s no guarantee (especially with the combination of looming increases in population and increases in global temperature) that this increase in moral order will last. If, indeed, the world plunged into chaos in 50-100 years, it would disprove Wright’s argument. Wouldn’t it?

So, is this (perhaps tentative) moral progress ascribable to God? Note: arguments like “Lincoln believed in God, so slavery ended because of God” (or the opposite) are beside the point that Wright is making – he is not arguing that believers in God ended American slavery, but that God set the whole process in motion so that American slavery would end. But I doubt that a fair-minded materialist would be convinced by this argument to change his mind. Wright argues in an early section of his book that the increase in population that led from hunter-gatherer culture to villages and farming were behind the intrusion of the supernatural into the moral sphere (hunter-gatherers do not seem to feel that there is a supernatural basis to morality). Might the further increase in morality – decreases in war and slavery – simply be a result of the moral demands of living with even greater amounts of people than those in Middle Eastern towns 2000 years ago? And of course, this increase in moral order might be just as fairly ascribed to improved technology, improved scientific knowledge, and improved economic and political theory.

There’s nothing about this that an omniscient God couldn’t have set up, but there’s nothing about all this that needs an omniscient God to set it up. There’s nothing in the moral progress that has been made which really really needs a God to explain it, so far as I can see. Someone of a scientific/atheistic bent would here apply Occam’s Razor (all other things considered, the simplest theory is correct), and argue that if God is unnecessary to explain ‘moral order’, then God probably doesn’t exist. But religious people, in my experience, don’t find Occam’s Razor all that convincing, because God seems very necessary to living their lives. And Wright clearly believes that God, and religion, are necessary for solving the problems that loom in our world; whether he is right about this would be another post.

Update: A sequel to this post: The Empire Strikes Back.